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From the Stacks -- 'Ride the Pink Horse'

April 15, 2011 |  1:12 am


  Ride the Pink Horse, Page 1  

Out of curiosity, I picked up this paperback for 50 cents at the Southern California Library’s book sale because the 1947 movie based on Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel is often mentioned as a classic film noir, and of course  it’s not on DVD except as a bootleg.

Hughes may be best known for the novel  “In a Lonely Place,” which was also made into a dark, brooding film noir. She was a prominent author of the 1940s and early 1950s who quit writing for family reasons, although she continued to review mysteries for The Times. 

I was ready for a major sit, with a fire in the fireplace, a cup of coffee, music, a comfy chair and – oh dear.  “Ride the Pink Horse” was a huge disappointment.

“Pink Horse” is a postwar novel that takes place in Santa Fe, N.M., during the city’s annual fiesta, and the title refers to one of the animals on a small merry-go-round that has been set up in the Plaza for the celebration.

The plot is minimal: Sailor, a former enforcer for a  politician nicknamed the Sen (as in Senator), arrives in a small Southwestern town to confront his old boss – the reason isn’t clear at first. Sailor quickly bumps into Mac, a homicide detective who is investigating the mysterious death of the Sen’s wife. With a few exceptions, the rest of the supporting characters are various dirty and generally foul Mexicans and Indians.

Hughes is clearly a gifted writer, which made my disappointment all the more keen. I imagine “Pink Horse” was written as a cheap paperback that would pay the rent and never meant to be literature.  But it is distressing to see an obviously talented author lose her way because she didn’t have a firm grasp on her characters before she started.

The writing in “Pink Horse” is hard and full of hate; it is surprising to read such tough prose from a woman author -- and in that way she reminds me of Patricia Highsmith. Sailor, the lead character, has a grudge against the world and is spoiling for a fight. To her credit, Hughes keeps Sailor sympathetic – rather like the trick Graham Greene pulls off in “This Gun for Hire” – until she loses control of her character, who starts out acting and thinking like a stevedore with a sixth-grade education and ends up having attended the University of Chicago and reading the society pages.  One of the few breaks in Sailor’s otherwise unrelenting animosity is a brief interlude of kindness in which he treats Pila, a 14-year-old girl from the pueblo of San Ildefonso, to a ride on the Pink Horse.

With a slim plot stretched and padded to 200 pages, Hughes devotes much of the book to the supporting characters and descriptions of Santa Fe and its people. One of my problems with the novel is that I haven’t been to Santa Fe for years, so I kept pausing in the story to try to remember things like how to get to La Fonda. I couldn’t be sure without a map, but it seemed that Hughes took liberties with the city’s geography. That is an author’s right, of course, but it certainly was a distraction. 

Even though “Pink Horse” is told from Sailor’s point of view – he’s looking at Latino and Native American culture as a rather racist outsider – the attitude toward people of color is annoying at first and then repulsive. The deal-breaker for me was a scene in which Sailor and the merry-go-round keeper (Don Jose Patrico Santiago Morales y Cortez, a.k.a. Pancho) get drunk as they bed down in the park  -- there are no hotel rooms available because it’s fiesta. In a fog of tequila, Pancho philosophizes about the interplay of Indian, Spanish, Mexican and Gringo cultures in Santa Fe. Right.

Semi-spoiler: This is a revenge tragedy set in the 1940s, so the bodies pile up, just as you knew they would. All except one – and that’s a question mark.

“Ride the Pink Horse” is available from various dealers and the Los Angeles Public Library.